lesbian fascism on TERF island

In the years leading up to World War II, many suffragettes became fascists. I don’t just mean that they harbored fascist sympathies, but that they continued to agitate for women’s emancipation as active members and leaders of fascist parties. Both the general presence of women in British fascism and the suffragette-to-fascist pipeline in particular are fairly well documented, but existing accounts tend to treat the queerness and gender deviance of many of the key players as incidental (if they acknowledge it at all). From what I can tell, there has been no treatment of lesbian fascism in its specificity, an oversight made all the starker when compared to the extensive explorations of the connection between fascism and male homoeroticism/homosexuality. What does it mean when a person’s desire for masculinity, for women, and/or for women’s emancipation becomes deeply and deliberately intertwined with fascism? (You can probably guess why I’m asking this question—it’s in the title.)

The founder of the very first fascist political party in the UK was a gender-nonconforming “spinster” who tried to join the Boy Scouts as a child and whose political career was ultimately derailed by her frequent participation in drug-fuelled orgies. Like the French Nazi butch Violette Morris, Rotha Lintorn-Orman got a taste of macho agency as a WWI ambulance driver, returning to England a traumatized patriot and Mussolini fanboy who despised communism. She established the British Fascisti on March 6, 1923, inspired by the October 1922 March on Rome.

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Rotha Lintorn-Orman

Julie Gottlieb sheds some brief light on Lintorn-Orman’s queer and gender-nonconforming tendencies in her monograph Feminine Fascism:

“Not only was Lintorn-Orman a single woman, but her preference for women in uniform and the paramilitary regimentation of the feminine provoked the pejorative description of her as a ‘mannish-woman’ […] When the Fascist Children’s Club held a Christmas party for 600 children in 1925, Lintorn-Orman played Father Christmas. A the Frivolity Ball organized by the London Dance Committee on 4 April 1930, Lintorn-Orman won one of the prizes for the best costume: she had dressed as a ‘grandfather.'”

In a book that features the word “lesbian” only once (in a footnote), it is hard not to read the extremely vague phrase “her preference for women in uniform”—which could refer to transmasculine inclinations, lesbian eroticism, or a general fervor for patriotic conformity—as deliberate obscuration. Nonetheless, the image conjured is as clear and painful as it needs to be: a person whose existence was so restricted and whose choices were so misguided that one of the few places they felt able to express their gender identity was a Fascist Children’s Club Christmas party.

Mary Sophia Allen—easily my least favorite of these lesbian fascists—was another militant suffragette whose feminist politics, beyond the vote, were entirely limited to extinguishing prostitution and so-called “white slavery” (work that is a direct antecedent of the contemporary anti-trafficking movement). Following enthusiastic participation in WWI, Allen returned home and began LARPing as a police officer, wearing a Metropolitan Police uniform and engaging in aggressive unpaid surveillance of communists. During the 1930s she met Mussolini and Hitler (with whom she discussed the issue of “women police”), and in 1939 joined Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists. Known as Robert to friends, Allen’s life is documented in a three-volume autobiography, The Pioneering Policewoman, A Woman at the Crossroads, and Lady in Blue.

Mary Sophia Allen (right), with partner, Margaret Damer Dawson

Mary Richardson, the militant suffragette famous for entering the National Gallery with a meat cleaver hidden under her clothes and using it to attack Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, was another lesbian fascist. Fanatically devoted to the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst, Richardson’s decision to destroy the painting was motivated by her outrage on hearing that Pankhurst had once again been arrested while delivering a political speech in Glasgow. Although she did not join the BUF until 1932, Mary’s justification of her famous act of iconoclasm—written up in a statement to the WSPU that was printed in The Times the day after her arrest—fuses lesbian feminist longing with traces of protofascist melodrama:

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas […] If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they [the government] allow the destruction of Mrs. Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy.”

I won’t pretend there haven’t been times in my life when I, too, might have been tempted to commit aesthetic terrorism on behalf of a woman I considered to be “the most beautiful character in modern history.” But that’s only part of the story: Richardson later explained, in radio interviews decades after the event, that she couldn’t stand that men “gawped” at the painting and that she “thought it sensuous.” While she may not yet have been an overt fascist by the time of the attack, the strange combination of her fanatical devotion to Pankhurst, distinctly lesbian feminist sex negativity, and urge to punish “artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy” demonstrates how Richardson’s love for women and commitment to women’s emancipation was already inextricable from her brewing fascist inclinations. Her words evoke the militant prudishness of Sex Wars groups like WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) and WAVPAM (Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media). Such militancy lingers as the primary tone of mainstream feminism in the UK today, which continues to be defined by anti-trans and anti-sex worker ideology, and where it is totally normal to suggest that choking during sex or the NHS adopting gender-neutral language are the most serious threats contemporary British women are facing.

In another retrospective explanation of her decision to disfigure the Velázquez painting, Richardson stated: “I had to draw the parallel between the public’s indifference to Mrs. Pankhurst’s slow destruction and the destruction of some financially valuable object. A painting came to mind. Yes, yes—the Venus Velasquez had painted, hanging in the National Gallery. It was highly prized for its worth in cash. If I could damage it, I reasoned, I could draw my parallel. The fact that I had disliked the painting would make it easier for me to do what was in my mind.” There is, of course, a beautiful and vital history of property destruction as a tactic of protest against human immiseration, and particularly the slow death of incarceration. It’s not like destroying a painting is always a bad thing. But to me, Richardson’s attack evokes a quite different political tradition. Examining the damage, it’s hard not to notice that every single one of her blows landed directly on Venus’ body:

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The Rokeby Venus in 1914, after Richardson’s attack

Looking at this image, I think about the argument, commonly made by SWERFs, that sex work, porn, and even the visual presence of nude women in general is a kind of symbolic violence against civilian women—indeed, that it is the primary form of violence sex work engenders. This bizarre argument allows SWERFs to claim that civilian women’s ability to shield their eyes from sex work—to live in a world where sex work is concealed and suppressed by criminalization—ought to trump sex working women’s ability to attain fair labor conditions and keep themselves safe. While Venus is just a painting, Richardson’s attack nonetheless presages the view that some women’s bodies can be (even ought to be) destroyed in service of the preservation of “beautiful living women”—a phrase eerily reminiscent of so-called gender critical feminists’ favored “adult human females.”

These stories are personal to me, a dyke deeply attached to my own masculinity who spent seven closeted years in a secondary school, Camden School for Girls, devoted to the preservation of the suffragette legacy. Every year, CSG holds a Founder’s Day on which students wear posies of suffragette colors and speeches are delivered about the school’s role in the history of women’s education and emancipation. We received extensive lessons about the suffragettes in History (where there was no mention of any of them being either lesbians or fascists). I recently learned that Maya Forstater, the woman so transphobic she was fired for it and whose case was subsequently championed by JK Rowling, is also an alum of CSG. So is Julia Hobsbawm, Eric Hobsbawm’s “Entrepreneur” daughter who recently attacked the gay socialist Owen Jones for his apparent war against “biological” women (she deleted the Tweet while I was writing this post). In 2019, CSG invited a transphobic feminist, Caroline Criado Perez, to speak at its assembly. In 2014, it made headlines for banning a 16-year-old student from wearing a niqab to school.

Despite an insightful and still-expanding body of thought on the question, I still think we haven’t fully resolved why UK feminism is so transphobic and (at times) so fascistic. Personally I suspect that the answer partly lies in a distinctly British aversion to pleasure, freedom, and self-actualization. The commitment to misery, to being a “bloody difficult woman,” is one of the main affective drives of the stubborn British insistence on an anti-trans and anti-sex work position even as the rest of the world moves on. At the same time, the historical roots of fascistic feminism are still, it seems, underexplored. As much as the “gender critical” movement is primarily driven by straight women, the involvement of lesbians is a sad reality, and TERF ideology is significantly grounded in a misguided saviour complex regarding butch/lesbian identities. Recuperating lesbian fascism might seem like a weird impulse, but it’s a history that, in all its bitterness, might help us better understand this sinister landscape we’re in.

*I just want to add quickly that in talking about “lesbian fascism,” I don’t want to definitively claim these figures were lesbian rather than trans. Part of what I’m trying to show is that the nonconsensual imposition of the category of womanhood—which seems to have been unwanted in at least some of these figures’ lives—appears to have been one of the driving forces behind their turn toward fascist ideology. Although they may have called themselves women (it’s striking that the words “woman” or “lady” appear in the title of every single volume of Allen’s autobiography), there is no doubt that Lintorn-Orman and Allen also occupy a complex position within trans history.

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